sun 14/08/2022

Astral Social Club at Catch, Shoreditch | reviews, news & interviews

Astral Social Club at Catch, Shoreditch

Astral Social Club at Catch, Shoreditch

Fragile and furious broadcasts from the noise underground

Neil Campbell is a one-man subculture. In 30 years of music-making in various configurations of improvised rock, psychedelia and electronics, he has released hundreds of hours of recordings, mainly in micro-editions of home-produced cassette, CD or mp3, and collaborated endlessly with a global network of musicians that have fallen through the cracks of genre or stylistic allegiance. Since separating from Leeds-based guitar drone group Vibracathedral Orchestra in 2006, he has mainly concentrated on his activities as Astral Social Club, under which name he performed a relatively rare live set at Shoreditch club night Noise! Noise! Noise! last night.

But before ASC came Joseph Scott: a tall fellow, smartly dressed, with a morose air that made him seem like a zombie butler consumed by infinite sorrow. Without acknowledging the audience he began to stroke washes of sound out of an electric guitar, before a drum machine rolled in and it became clear that he was producing fairly standard “shoegaze” music in the tradition of My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus And Mary Chain and the bands that followed them.

Like those bands, Scott hid softly pained vocal melodies within swathes of diffuse distortion – but in his case those melodies were so bizarrely poppy that they could have come from Coldplay songs or even George Michael. It's a bizarre combination delivered with little regard for sonic balance or dramatic structure, and all-in-all felt uncomfortably close to collapse, and not in a good way either.

Team_BrickNo such lack of drama in the music of Matt Williams aka Team Brick (pictured right), though. The young Bristolian in a “RIOT NRRD” T-shirt (punning on the “riot grrl” movement of the early 1990s) is signed to the Invada label run by Portishead's Geoff Barrow, and Matt plays alongside Barrow in his BEAK> project, but his solo music couldn't be further from Portishead. Using mainly only a microphone and a table full of effects pedals, Scott built up crazed collages of chattering, babbling, chanting voices which corroded into sheets of crunching sound.

Frequently it would simply seem comical, as when he stripped aside the distortion to begin a kind of demonic speaking-in-tongues, sounding more like a Star Wars monster than anything else. But each time his abstracted but very real sense of musicality took it to stranger places: his Jabba The Hutt becoming first Tibetan lama then a synagogue cantor, then something way beyond human, each transformation wrong-footing the audience and drawing them gradually from detached amusement to a terrifying sense of being caught in the centre of an alien ritual of great power.

Improvised, devoid of repeated rhythm, and with melody only periodically emerging from the melée only to be swallowed again by the churning lava pools of sound, the overall effect was nonetheless intensely musical and, it seemed, distinctly programmatic – even if the stories it was telling were disturbing and perhaps best not fully discerned. And what's more, in all their ridiculousness and horror, these mini-symphonies in noise were even bizarrely moving.

The Astral Social Club had no interest in such romantic or programmatic ambitions, though. An incongruously genial presence, Neil Campbell took the stage with a cheery “good evening!”, then set going what sounded like a loop of badly degraded Bollywood soundtrack, which progressively decayed further over several minutes. Over this, on a darkened stage, he fired off a hand-held strobe light at a photoreceptor, triggering explosions of chirruping and booming synthetic sound, gradually building up something which threatened to become techno, but always remained relentless and devoid of dance music's funk.

Campbell has spoken in interviews about the influence of Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker's “stress-every-beat approach”, and that sums up ASC. Syncopation and standard dynamics are out of the question; while rhythm was everything in the performance, this rhythm was entirely about emphatically steady repetition, with intensity and density of sound the only variables. As his initial loop decayed beyond recognition, helicopter-like whirring and clatter rose up, different flickering sounds vying for the foreground, and a second musician joining to add more tonal synthesiser throbbings as Campbell picked up a guitar to add shrieks of pure distortion.

Each time it threatened to become trial by ordeal, though, there would be a shift in the intensities, an opening of the clouds to reveal radiant chords, or a heartbeat like sub-bass sound rising up to provide some sense of comfort amidst the fury. The effect was of a particularly fierce kind of hypnosis; several audience members danced, others screwed their faces up, and many more just stared, but at the end as the sounds evaporated into the night air the eruption of applause was warm and genuine, the sense of shared catharsis really quite powerful. This was not music that will ever be fashionable; but the intense involvement of the surprisingly diverse audience with these sometimes brutal abstractions was a delight to see.

Team Brick on Amazon

Astral Social Club on Amazon

Astral Social Club on MySpace

Astral Social Club interview for VHF records

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